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Thursday, March 22, 2012

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Crack Babies

"Do you believe your child is male or female or too hideously deformed to tell?"
-Cartman, South Park "Crack Baby Athletic Association"

In the late 1980s, when crack cocaine first became known, the newspapers and TV news broadcasts began to fill with stories of the crack baby. Crack Babies were described as an epidemic, as mothers smoked crack cocaine while pregnant and gave birth to babies damaged by the drug.

These crack babies were smaller in size, we were told. They were worse affected by stress, more prone to violence, anxious, moody, even prone to mental retardation . A story from the New York Times in 1989 by Sandra Blakeslee intones:
Prenatal exposure to illegal drugs, particularly powdered cocaine and its smokable derivative, crack, seems to be "interfering with the central core of what it is to be human," said Coryl Jones, a research psychologist at the National Institute of Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Md.

The new research does indicate that most babies exposed to the illegal drugs appear able to develop normal, if low-range, intelligence despite their subnormal emotional development.
...
"But when we looked at the quality of their performance," Dr. Chasnoff said, "we saw problems." An average toddler not exposed to drugs can place two, three or more objects in the box. "When we gave more than one object to the cocaine babies, they got frustrated," he said. "They had difficulty concentrating and were distracted by the second objects."
What would their future be like? Already living in poverty and misery, their lives starting with the haze of drugs, these infants - largely black children - had a 'joyless' future, as the article puts it.

This epidemic of babies born to crack addicted mothers was going to flood across our cities, causing even more problems in already troubled, slum neighborhoods. Greater gang violence was predicted, greater poverty, more drug addiction. How would this impact America's future?

As it turns out... not so much.

Now in 2012, the New York Times has a different tone. Susan Okie writes:
But now researchers are systematically following children who were exposed to cocaine before birth, and their findings suggest that the encouraging stories of Ms. H.’s daughters are anything but unusual. So far, these scientists say, the long-term effects of such exposure on children’s brain development and behavior appear relatively small.

“Are there differences? Yes,” said Barry M. Lester, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University who directs the Maternal Lifestyle Study, a large federally financed study of children exposed to cocaine in the womb. “Are they reliable and persistent? Yes. Are they big? No.”

Cocaine is undoubtedly bad for the fetus. But experts say its effects are less severe than those of alcohol and are comparable to those of tobacco — two legal substances that are used much more often by pregnant women, despite health warnings.
...
At a scientific conference in November, Dr. Lester presented an analysis of a pool of studies of 14 groups of cocaine-exposed children — 4,419 in all, ranging in age from 4 to 13. The analysis failed to show a statistically significant effect on I.Q. or language development. In the largest of the studies, I.Q. scores of exposed children averaged about 4 points lower at age 7 than those of unexposed children.
It turns out that these children don't really show much sign of any difference from other children. So what was going on in those old studies, what happened to those kids?

Well, first off, these babies were a small group: just over 250 from one area of Chicago. That's not a very good pool to prove anything from nationwide because of all the other factors: is it something else in their environment? Is it something genetic in the families of this area?

Second, these were very poor slum babies being compared to average babies from across America. In other words, you took a kid who on average will be fed and cared for well and compared them to babies who weren't. There's a joke in Russia that goes like this:
A father comes home and announces to his family that the price of vodka has gone up. His daughter asks, "daddy, does this mean you will drink less vodka?"

The father answers, "no, this means you will eat less."
No, its not really so much funny as tragic, but its a Russian joke. But that's how addiction works. When it comes down to the drug vs... well anything else, the drug wins. That means not enough food, heat, shelter, care, love, or attention. And that means they don't develop very well.

And then there's the lingering effect. When a mother gets stoned... so does her baby. Her blood shares all its chemistry and whatever she's added to it like crack with her baby. So what she has happen to her, happens to the baby. Researchers weren't sure exactly how that would affect a baby, and they've been doing studies about drugs and children for decades trying to learn.

When my oldest brother was born, it was in the late 50s, and they gave my mom ether. Yeah, ether, I'm not kidding. She was knocked out (and got incredibly sick from the aftereffects), and my brother was born basically knocked out on ether, too. He slept for days, barely able to wake up enough to drink milk. Eventually he came out of it, but he was a mess for a while.

Why doesn't this affect babies as badly as expected? Well I suspect that its related to stem cells. The reason that researchers are fascinated by embryonic stem cells is their explosive, unbelievable growth and healing ability. You can cut a joint off a baby's finger (by accident, of course, what kind of monster would mangle a baby?) and it will regrow if early enough. A baby's ability to regenerate is phenomenal, and probably is part of the design to help them survive and prosper after being squeezed out a mother.

That ability to adapt, heal, and survive is probably why crack, alcohol, PCP and other drugs that mothers take don't affect them as badly or even at all like researchers expected. They might be a mess for a bit, but in a few months, they can recover pretty well. In that time, and for a while after they might lag a bit behind other kids in development - especially if their mom is an addict and doesn't care for or teach them - but they can recover remarkably and have a normal life.

So its bad for kids to have moms who drink, smoke, shoot up, or what have you, but it isn't an incredibly destructive epidemic. There was no crack baby epidemic, it was all just media hype based on one study out of Chicago on a small group of kids without enough time or data to draw any conclusions. But hey, when has that stopped the news media before?

But now the crack baby is woven into American popular culture, referenced by South Park and dozens of other entertainment sources because its just presumed to be true and part of our life. And now, its the "meth baby" that is being hyped.

*This is part of the Common Knowledge series; stuff we all know that isn't so.

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